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The company car of Yard Guards on Doody has a vanity plate that ties into the business.
By Keith Morelli of The Tampa Tribune
Published: February 8, 2008

TAMPA - Some are easy to figure out: ZIP N BYU.

pooper scooperOthers take a moment and require reading out loud: RU D1 4ME.

Most you have to read a couple of times to get: L-8-R DUDE.

Vanity license plates can shout out messages or just identify the driver. They can deliver subtle messages that require time and brains to decipher.

There's no hidden message in Pamela Bush's license plate, KNEE CE. The Tampa woman who works in Ybor City said it's a childhood name and that she's had the plate for quite a while.

"It's a nickname," she said this week. People don't comment as much as they used to, at least she doesn't notice it anymore.

"A lot of times people would say something, right after I put it on, and I would wonder, 'Who is that person and how do they know me,' " she said.

Federal highway officials estimate that across the nation there are more than 9 million vanity, or personalized, plates bolted to the backs of vehicles. In Florida, nearly half a million of them are in use, adding a cost of $10 to $12 each and pulling in about $4.6 million a year.

Sunshine State vanity plates first appeared 36 years ago, and to get one on your car requires some doing. You can't go into the tag office, tell the clerk what you want and then get a plate stamped out and handed over. If there is any question about the requested message, there will be review boards and committees involved.

Ann Nucatola, one of five members on the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles committee that reviews questionable vanity license tag applications, said the submissions that are rejected by that committee go to another review board for a final decision.

"They are double-checked," she said.

During the past five years or so, more than 1,400 vanity tags were reviewed by the department for various reasons, mostly because they had to do with sex or drugs, hate or violence or were offensive in some other way.

The committee meets once every month to six weeks, depending on the number of applications in the basket. The committee only reviews applications that have been rejected on first blush, "the ones that have raised red flags," Nucatola said.

On average, the committee reviews about 30 applications a session.

Each application has an explanation box that must be filled out, she said. If the explanation is plausible, the plate, if it meets other criteria, is passed. Those that are rejected get punted to the final review board for further consideration. If they are rejected there, the case is closed, she said.

"We do have criteria that are set," Nucatola said, "and Florida statutes give this agency the enforcement authority."

Forty percent to 75 percent of those reviewed by her committee get the ax, she said.

The vast majority are approved at tag offices, she said.

People R Sneaky

Often people try to disguise messages, like using A55, which looks like something else; same way with using the "PH" combination to make the "f" sound.

"Sometimes we do need to read them out loud to understand them," she said. And that's for the ones in English.

As more and more languages work their way into American culture, the committee has to be mindful of offensive message delivered in those languages. Something innocuous in English could be offensive or even profane in another language, she said.

"We sometimes have to put words through a Spanish dictionary, a Korean dictionary or even a Japanese dictionary," she said. "We have to be careful and double-check things. It's not just straight English anymore."

Also closely watched are the combinations of letters and numbers that make phrases, perfected in the art of text messaging, that may be objectionable.

Anything with the word "hate" in it, or the abbreviated H-8 or HTR, is rejected automatically, she said. That includes references to sports teams such as G8R-H8R or NOLE-H8R.

That just invites problems, she said.

"We want everyone to be happy," she said, "especially in this day and age of road rage."

Anything that has pornographic or obscene connotations immediately is denied, she said. But applicants do have an opportunity to explain their requests. If the seemingly offensive combination of letters is a person's initials, that may go through, Nucatola said, but the applicant would have to prove that the letters do stand for someone's name.

Then there's the complaint process. If someone complains about a license plate, it is reviewed. If it is determined to be offensive, it could be yanked, she said.


The proliferation of vanity plates is not all that unexpected in popular culture. After all, it's sort of like a monogrammed hat or a custom-made T-shirt. It's all about shouting your individuality, said Elizabeth Bird, professor of anthropology at the University of South Florida, explaining why people spend good, hard-earned money on vanity plates.

"It seems to me it's just another way to distinguish themselves, to assert individuality," she said.

"There is a lot of emphasis in the American culture on individuality," she said, "while at the same time there is a fear that we all are just numbers."

So, people reach for ways to stand out, she said.

"They just want some attention," Bird said, "to break through the clutter, as the advertisers say."

Others get outrageous vanity plates just to get a reaction, she said, and some people don't really care if it's a positive reaction.

"They just want to be noticed."

Vanity plates have found a home in American popular culture, having been placed prominently in television shows and movies.

KITT, the Pontiac Trans Am in the original "Knight Rider" television series, sported a KNIGHT tag, and most remember the Seinfeld episode in which an ASSMAN vanity plate landed in Kramer's mail one day.

In film, the time-traveling DeLorean in the "Back to the Future" movies was tagged OUTATIME, and the "Ghostbusters" heap had an ECTO-1 tag.

Can you recall the tag on Burt Reynolds' Trans Am in the "Smokey and the Bandit" films? BAN ONE, of course, and Christie Brinkley's sassy Ferrari convertible that caught Chevy Chase's attention in National Lampoon's Vacation was an unforgettable LOVE ME.

How 2 Get UR Own

Obtaining a personalized license plate is easy and fairly cheap. According to the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles' Web site, this is what you do:

Applications must be submitted to the department for approval, and those applications can be done online or at the local tag office.

The cost is an additional $12 a year for each personalized license plate, and applications may be submitted at any time, regardless of time left on the existing tag.

The tag's manufacturer has 45 calendar days from the date the order is received, not the date the license plate was ordered, to make and ship the plate. So people ordering vanity plates should do so well in advance of when their registration expires.

Plates with a center logo, including the basic Florida license plate and some of the specialty plates such as Save the Manatee or the Florida Panther, may have up to seven characters plus either a space or a hyphen.

License plates with a left-side logo design, such as those of colleges or professional sports teams, may have up to five characters, with no additional space or hyphen.

Reporter Keith Morelli can be reached at (813) 259-7760 or